"Nuremberg" was the word du jour in coverage of the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, which began today. Almost every story about the Serbian strongman's showdown at The Hague echoed the Independent's description of the case as "the biggest war crimes trial since the Nuremberg hearings at the end of the Second World War." Milosevic, the first head of state to face an international tribunal for acts committed during his rule, is charged with crimes against humanity, including genocide, in Bosnia and Croatia between 1991 and 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999. Milosevic does not recognize the court's legitimacy and has refused to appoint defense counsel.
An editorial in the Independent presented the tribunal as a "chance to set a new standard for a new century." It said, "The years between Nuremberg and today have been an inglorious catalogue of failure by the international community to find a mechanism for handling accusations of crimes against humanity at the very highest level by ruthless individuals such as Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Baby Doc Duvalier, Augusto Pinochet and Saddam Hussein." An Indy op-ed admitted that this is "victor's justice"; after all "Vladimir Putin will never be prosecuted for Chechnya, nor the United States for its misdeeds in Central America, nor even Ariel Sharon for Sabra and Shatila." Nevertheless, it said, "the importance of the occasion is transcending." The Financial Times said the tribunal's reputation for impartiality would be improved if prosecutors "were as assiduous in pursuing charges against Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians as they have been against Serbs and Croats."
The Daily Telegraph's foreign editor warned against demonizing "Slobo … the world's pin-up Balkan demon. … The truth is that most Serbs revelled in the wars. They voted Milosevic into office time and again in the Nineties. They dropped him only when he lost Kosovo and the economy was close to collapse." The trial is an opportunity for ordinary Serbs to confront "what was done while they turned their backs" and for the West "to exorcise our guilt" for not having done enough to halt the carnage. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung agreed that the trial "will cast fresh light on the constraints that realpolitik imposes on international diplomacy." The op-ed said, "[T]he hearings will clearly reveal that Europe and the United States alike, starting in 1991, accepted for far too long as a partner the person chiefly responsible for the wars, and indeed paid court to him, though his machinations in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina had long been public knowledge."
As many as 200,000 people are thought to have died and 4 million made homeless in the decade of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. The Financial Times predicted that the prosecutors' biggest challenge will be to establish "the chains of command that could link Mr Milosevic to individual atrocities." The Sydney Morning Herald identified some of the difficulties: "Many potential witnesses who would be best able to give credible evidence of such orders are senior ministers, civil servants and generals. But by giving such evidence, they would also be pointing to their own responsibility. Not surprisingly, many are reluctant, further complicating this difficult trial."
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.